WASHINGTON, D.C.—On the day that Hillary Clinton was scheduled to announce her much-anticipated findings from a trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, all the attention in Washington was focused on Barack Obama.
It started in the morning with a videotaped announcement on Mr. Obama’s Web site that he was forming an exploratory committee to run for President. By the evening, in the halls of the Senate, Mr. Obama couldn’t move without attracting a scrum of reporters in dark suits and skirts trying to head him off as he strode, ever so confidently, between portraits of dead Presidents, between meetings and the Senate floor.
“I think there is a very high likelihood that we formally enter the race, but it is not a completely done deal,” said Mr. Obama, after finally being corralled by three reporters who accompanied him into the elevator and outside the building to his car. He added that he has already reached out to people in Iowa and New Hampshire and continued to hire staff for his campaign.
Asked if his early opposition to the war in Iraq gave him an advantage over Mrs. Clinton, who voted to authorize the President’s use of force, Mr. Obama said, “People want something new, and what is most important for me is to figure out what I actually believe on an issue and say it clearly and forthrightly, and let the politics sort themselves out.”
Pressed specifically about his current thinking on Iraq, Mr. Obama said, “I have arrived at a position in terms of Iraq; I know what we should be doing. What we are now figuring out is institutionally what levers do we have to stop the President from taking what I think is the wrong approach.”
Mrs. Clinton’s press conference, meanwhile, was postponed after Representative John McHugh, one of the officials traveling with her, fell ill. Instead, she was left to cast her votes, meet with staff and conduct her Senatorial business.
It was somehow fitting that Hillary Clinton kept a low profile on the very day that her most-talked-about rival announced the kickoff of his campaign. It set up the very contrasts that her supporters have been hinting at ever since Mr. Obama first toyed with idea of joining the 2008 sweepstakes: real experience versus aspiration, substance versus flash.
Indeed, last week, while the charismatic Senator from Illinois was planning his announcement—made Tuesday by way of a video posted on his Web site—Mrs. Clinton was traveling around America’s theaters of war, talking to national leaders and soldiers about what was happening there on the ground.
“She takes her responsibilities very seriously,” said Francis Greenburger, a prominent New York literary agent and a member-in-waiting of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign-finance committee. “She wants to have an on-the-ground impression as she formulates her position on Iraq.”
Long before the latest trip, her third to Iraq, Mrs. Clinton recognized the inevitable: that Iraq was going to be a central part of her existence, both as an extraordinarily prominent Senator and as a candidate for 2008. Though she is still securely fastened to the political and strategic center on Iraq, it is only now—after her announced opposition to the President’s plan to send nearly 22,000 additional troops to Iraq—that a comprehensive position is hardening.
Far from the hard-to-define nebulousness that once characterized her pronouncements on the war, Mrs. Clinton’s posture—stubbornly against rapid troop withdrawal, but implacably skeptical about the ability of the Iraqi government to hold things together—now sets her in stark contrast with her potential rivals in the 2008 Presidential race, like Senator John McCain, who supports the increase in troop levels by the Bush administration, and former Senator John Edwards, who has called for immediate withdrawal from Baghdad and accuses Mrs. Clinton of betraying the base of her party.
And the stakes, politically and substantively, could hardly be higher.
“It’s tough for her, because she is not going to have the chance to have two Iraq plans between now and 2008. She sort of has to get it right on the first try,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t know if she would say she has a clear alternative strategy.”
Mrs. Clinton’s meetings over the last week with leaders of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with top U.S. military officials, seem not to have changed her view of things in any large way.
An aide to Mrs. Clinton said that her meeting with Iraqi leader Nuri al-Maliki did not affect her conviction that the President’s proposal to send 21,500 more troops was a bad idea, and said she still believes that a phased redeployment of American troops is necessary to put pressure on Mr. Maliki and the Iraqi government to take on more responsibility. The aide also said that Mrs. Clinton made it clear to the Iraqi prime minister that there is deep concern in the United States about the current course in Iraq.
She was similarly unmoved, apparently, by a conversation she had several days ago with Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, whom Mr. Bush has selected to replace Gen. George Casey as the top American commander in Iraq, and who has advocated the idea of a troop increase.
Mrs. Clinton’s meeting with Afghani President Hamid Karzai was somewhat more productive, according to the aide, reaffirming the Senator’s conviction that America needs to send an additional 2,300 troops there to bolster the government ahead of an expected intensification of fighting in the spring.
While Mrs. Clinton’s position on Iraq has placed her in what she described to The New Yorker recently as “the lonely middle,” her multiple trips to Iraq and her active role on the Armed Services Committee also serve a political purpose: They show her embracing the issue rather than running from it, inoculating herself against the accusations of avoidance and double-speak that sunk the Presidential campaign of John Kerry in 2004.
“She has the reputation as a serious student of military policy, a workhorse, a show horse, on that committee, and has earned the respect of top military officials as a result,” said Will Marshall president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the hawkish Democratic Leadership Council. “She has got more experience in foreign policy than many people who are contemplating a Presidential bid.”
She had begun her trip on Thursday night, landing in Kuwait on Friday for a meeting with the American ambassador. After a delay due to bad weather, Mrs. Clinton and the delegation, which also included Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, arrived in Baghdad on Saturday morning and met with General Casey and Gen. Ray Odierno together, then traveled to the Green Zone, where she met with Iraqi officials. Later, Mrs. Clinton met with Prime Minister al-Maliki.
On Saturday night, the delegation flew out of Baghdad and into Kuwait. They flew into Islamabad, Pakistan, on Sunday morning, where they met with Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They then flew to Afghanistan, where they visited the 10th Mountain Division, composed of soldiers from New York, and met with Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley. They then took their C-130 Hercules to meet with Mr. Karzai.
On Sunday night, Mrs. Clinton met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharref and Ambassador Crocker. Then they flew to Germany, to visit wounded soldiers and have lunch, on Monday, with military officials.
And, of course, she arrived back in the United States on Monday night, landing just hours before Mr. Obama’s announcement circus, which put him in a category with Mr. Edwards, Senators Joseph R. Biden of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as candidates who have taken official steps towards a Presidential bid.
Although Mrs. Clinton’s campaign gave no overt indication that the actions of her opponents would affect the timing of her bid, her supporters talked about it as something imminent.
“I think we’re close,” said supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, a major donor. “I think we all know what the decision is going to be. Timing-wise, we knew in December it was going to be January or very early February. There is no surprise.”
By contrast, party operatives outside Mrs. Clinton’s camp clearly view the timing of her announcement as a reaction. “Three words: Oh. Ba. Ma. That’s all it is,” said Tom Ochs, who worked on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004. “It’s putting pressure on in a way they didn’t anticipate, so they have got to move things up a little bit.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton’s opponents are already trying to put pressure on her over her evolving Iraq position.
Mr. Edwards, who is positioning himself as the candidate of the party’s anti-war wing, launched a thinly veiled attack against Mrs. Clinton this weekend during a Martin Luther King Jr. speech at Manhattan’s Riverside Church, in which he said that “it is no longer O.K. to study your options and keep your own private counsel.”
Mrs. Clinton’s hope will have to be that her conspicuous efforts to come to grips with a coherent and realistic position on Iraq—notably, by going directly to the scene of the fighting to form her own impressions—will speak for itself.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a senior research fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center, of Mrs. Clinton’s trip to the troops. “When people come in, a lot of people come in and ask the same questions and have an agenda. Soldiers see that and are a little bothered by it. On the other hand, if the listener is sincere and the soldiers sense a legitimate concern for what they are going through and the operation, then they see it as an opportunity to make the leadership in the United States aware of what is really going on.
“A lot of it depends on the whole atmosphere or context in which the visit happens,” he added.
And that, in short, is exactly what many Democrats want to know from Mrs. Clinton: Is her studied caution about Iraq politically motivated, with a view to her own best interests, or intellectually and strategically motivated, with a view to finding the most responsible position for U.S. interests and Iraqi security?
“Certainly the war is going to be a big issue for her, and where she wants to be on this one,” said Tom Keaney, executive director of the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, who added that he had “not a clue” as to where exactly Mrs. Clinton stood on the war. “I mean, I have heard what she has said, but I think it is more political positioning than a strong feeling about what ought to be done.”